Tourism Talanoa: Where Are Our Tourism Workers?

Tourism Talanoa: Where Are Our Tourism Workers?

FHTA, 29 October 2020 – Nadi and the surrounding tourism hot spots are still reeling from the effects of the border closures.

With the subsequent drop-in visitors and the tourism industry being brought to a standstill, the once-proud tourist Jet Set town is still very much on its knees.

With every part of the town connected in some way to the tourism sector, the effects on the ground are staggering.

We took a walk around the quiet environs of Nadi to talk to people about how they were coping, and what they were doing in terms of finding alternative employment and income options so that we could see it from the people who make tourism the industry it usually is.

Vijay (not his real name) for example, is used to the hustle and bustle of cabin crew life.

Every few days, a different stopover location was guaranteed as he navigated life as a member of the coveted Fiji Airways flight attendant’s family.

He spent more than 13 years in the air, working his way up from the bottom.

He has been self-employed since 25 May and has refocused his efforts on how he earns an income.

He manages this by making delicious food from home and then setting up at Nadi’s now-famous VotCity market, that has sprung up at the entrance to the sprawling suburb of Votualevu, just outside Nadi town and a stone’s throw from the international airport, where many of the aircraft he once flew in, sit quietly parked.

While he looks forward to the weekend rush, he knows not to be complacent with just those sales and has made a conscious effort to sell his wares every day of the week.

His normal day starts at 4 am as he and his wife prep and cook the food so that he is at the market location by 7 am to book a prime table position.

The bond between the vendors at VotCity is evident as they laugh and joke with each other, but this does not soften the undercurrent of uncertainty that permeates the whole of Nadi.

Vijay is obviously unhappy with how things got to where they are right now, and he desperately wants and needs his job back. He also worries about using his FNPF, knowing that his current reliance on it means his retirement funds get slowly eroded at the same time.

Fellow vendor and former cabin crew colleague Wati (not her real name either) shares Vijay’s sentiments.

She was in the final year of her Diploma program at the then Fiji Institute of Technology when she became a flight attendant 20 years ago and never got around to completing her initial study plan.

She makes the best with what she can manage at the VotCity markets and being a single mother to 6 children feeds the strong will to keep going.

But she is glad for the 20 plus years she has spent in the skies as it has taught her many things and opened her eyes to many experiences.

“My people skills come in handy when customers come to VotCity looking for something to eat and I engage with them to hopefully get them to buy my goods,” she says.

For a few months after the last commercial flight left in late March, Nadi seemed unaffected from the outside.

But the pressure on businesses and organisations to manage staff and maintain operating costs without the usual income from international visitors became too much, and a wave of terminations and redundancies ensued that affected the many workers that made Fiji the tourism hotspot it had become.

Like Vijay, Wati’s day starts at around 4 am as she readies her goods for the day. She rushes in early to the market to avoid the traffic and to book a good spot. Everyone knows location is important in marketing one’s products.

“Most of my former colleagues have turned to gardening and some are working again after applying to other workplaces. They stop by every once in a while, to say hi or to buy some food, so we’re grateful for that support,” she says.

Marika is selling dalo and cassava he helped dig up from his brother’s farm in Sabeto, by the side of the large Votualevu roundabout. He was a diver with one of the small resorts in the Mamanuca Islands, while his wife worked at the resort as a housemaid and nanny for the Kid’s Club.

The resort is closed and all but a small handful of staff were laid off. There are no scheduled ferry services to the island anymore as the large vessels require a higher demand to offset its high operational costs.

With no international visitors and lower domestic tourism demand, scheduled services to the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands ceased. Very few resorts remain open and if open, are operating at reduced capacity with their own smaller transfer vessels.

Marika tried getting dive work with the few that were open, but there was no local tourism demand for diving or most other activities for that matter, so he joined many of the activity and resort staff in going back to family and farming to get by till things got better.

When asked how long he thought he could continue this way, he said: “We have food and earn a little money to buy what we need, but I will not be able to afford my children’s boarding school fees next year if this continues.” He adds after a moment’s thought, “But I know I am luckier than others”.

At a coffee shop, an airline engineer, and his friend a former check-in agent responds to the “where to now?” question with shrugs. They are waiting to turn 55 next year so they can access their full retirement funds to progress their now brought forward retirement plans to start their own business.

Nadi is a town where tourism touches everyone in some way, form or fashion. Up and down the coast from Sigatoka to Rakiraki, and all the way around the Sun Coast to the eastern coasts and islands off there, the stories are similar.

Whether you were a chef or porter, or an air-conditioning engineer or sales & marketing staff; the lack of employment support (or employment opportunities) is heartbreaking when you have been laid off like thousands of others.

The many “To-Let” and “For Rent” signs and shuttered up buildings around the residential and commercial areas reinforces the quiet desperation that has seeped into the once lively Jet Set Town that stayed open late and led Fiji into the 7-day shopping hours that has become normal all over Fiji now.

No doubt the entire world is going through similar situations in varying degrees, but it hurts more when it is this close to home. And right now, nearly everyone in Fiji knows someone who has either lost a job, is on reduced hours or on leave without pay.
Our tourism workers have not gone anywhere. They are trying to get by. And waiting.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 29 October 2020)